Associated Press

Chinese big man Zhou Qi rejects Josh Jackson shot, looks at home on Summer League court

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LAS VEGAS — Before Monday, my last memory of seeing 7’2″ Chinese center Zhou Qi going up against NBA talent was not a good one for the young man with NBA aspirations. He was part of the Chinese national team that played two exhibitions against Team USA before the Rio Olympics, and Zhou looked overwhelmed in the first meeting, shooting 1-of-6 shooting for two points. He looked more comfortable and aggressive in the second meeting and led China with 13 points, plus intimidated a couple USA drivers into the paint, but he didn’t seem NBA ready yet.

He looks much closer now. Just ask Suns’ No. 3 pick Josh Jackson.

In Las Vegas playing for the Rockets’ Summer League team, Zhou looks at home on the court — he belongs. He is tall, long (7’7″ wingspan), and is surprisingly mobile. In the past couple of years, it seems Zhou’s game has matured. (To be fair, part of it also is judging anyone against that Team USA squad — with 12 of the top 15-20 players on the planet — was unfair.)

He’s still a work in progress with a long way to go, but the Rockets like what they have seen this summer in terms of his potential as a shot-blocking big in the NBA.

“You look at the game… he had 3 points in 23 minutes, but he was a +23, which means he was having a positive impact on the game,” Rockets Summer League coach Roy Rogers said Monday after a Rockets win. “Sometimes when you’re watching him you don’t realize all the little plays he makes while he is on the court, whether it be contesting a shot, getting a rebound, in the right position defensively. He’s progressed really well in this first week of Summer League, we just have to keep him going in the right direction.”

While defensively he has looked better, Zhou is shooting just 32 percent in Las Vegas. He has knocked down a couple of threes but mostly struggled from deep (0-7 the last two games). The Rockets want him to take those shots, they don’t want him taking midrange jumpers, they like he is willing to shoot the long ball. One good development on Monday was when a defender closed out on him at the arc he put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket.

“I don’t even consider it him struggling with his shot because he’s had great looks,” Rogers said.

Zhou is learning the NBA game. He has struggled some deal with bigs who can step out on the perimeter — his instincts are to protect the rim, so against Denver in his first Summer League game he was late to recover on Juan Hernangomez, letting him get open looks on jumpers.

Zhou also needs to get stronger to deal with some of the more physical big men in the NBA.

“I think the muscle part is overrated, because in our league now we want to show off our speed and athleticism, so there’s no need in him becoming a bulky guy… (mobility) is one of his biggest strengths right now,” Rogers said. “I think our training staff, strength coach, will get him stronger, but it’s not a big focus of ours, to necessarily get him bigger.”

For NBA teams, Summer League is about discovering and starting to unlock potential — and Zhou has that. He’s a project, one who likely spends part of next season in the G-League getting run he could not on a contending Rockets’ team, but you can see why Rockets GM Daryl Morey signed him. It’s not hard to see where Zhou could fit in the NBA game as a shot-blocking big who can knock down the occasional three. He has a spot in the NBA if he continues to develop.

“He’s a special kid,” Rogers said. “You coach him, you get on him, you tell him what to do and he goes back out and does it as hard as he can. So he’s been a pleasure to be around. He gets along great with this teammates. I’ve been fortunate to get to coach him.”

Report: Chris Paul recruiting LeBron James hard to Rockets

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Chris Paul built himself into the NBA’s greatest point guard since Magic Johnson (until Stephen Curry came around). Paul mastered the game, offensively and defensively. He led two franchises, New Orleans and the Clippers, taking huge burdens for each.

Then, he engineered a trade to the Rockets to become James Harden‘s sidekick. Paul learned to excel at that, too.

Now comes phase two in Houston. The Rockets must pay him, and it sounds as if they will. And Paul will recruit his friend LeBron James to join him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris is going to return there. And listen, right now, Chris Paul’s focus isn’t so much on his own free agency. He’s trying to recruit LeBron James to Houston, and somebody close to him said to me he is as focused on recruiting LeBron as anything he’s done in this league. He wants to find a way.

The Rockets were on the cusp of beating the Warriors. LeBron could put Houston over the top and get Paul an elusive championship. I certainly understand Paul’s hunger to make it happen. He’ll probably never get a better opportunity to win a title than this.

Could the Rockets get LeBron? Carmelo Anthony, before getting traded to the Thunder, told friends of a desire to team up with Paul and eventually LeBron in Houston. LeBron once said he’d take a pay cut to play with Paul, Anthony and Dwyane Wade – not that LeBron must to play with just Paul in Houston. The Cavaliers, Rockets and LeBron could execute an opt-in-and-trade that sends LeBron to Houston, similar to how Paul got there last summer.

But it seems Paul is fighting an uphill battle. LeBron reportedly said he doesn’t like Houston as a city, and lifestyle matters.

Not that the intensely competitive Paul will just give up.

Report: Marvin Bagley ‘near-lock’ to Kings at No. 2 in draft

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The Suns will almost certainly take DeAndre Ayton No. 1 overall in Thursday’s NBA draft.

The mystery begins with the Kings at No. 2.

They’ve been linked to Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr. and now, most strongly, Marvin Bagley.

Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News:

I wouldn’t like that pick. Bagley is a high-end prospect, but I’d take Doncic (and prefer a few others to Bagley).

Bagley is a phenomenal finisher and rebounder due to his athleticism and exertion. He runs the floor hard and is quick off his feet, repeatedly.

But he is a huge liability as a rim protector, making him a tough fit as a defensive center. His just lacks the awareness, length and strength to defend the paint well. He can improve his awareness and maybe his strength to acceptable levels, but there is such a long way to go.

I also don’t trust his jump shot or defensive awareness on the perimeter enough for him to play power forward offensively or defensively.

Of all the top prospects, Bagley might be the trickiest to build around. And the Kings don’t have the greatest track record of roster building, even in the rare times they get a lottery pick right.

Report: Wizards willing to trade No. 15 pick if team takes on bad contract with it

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The Washington Wizards had the fourth highest payroll in the NBA last season — a lot to pay for the No. 8 seed and an unceremonious first-round playoff exit.

One way or another expect changes to the Wizards’ roster going into next season. Big names could be on the move. Even before that, the Wizards have signaled they will trade the No. 15 pick in Thursday’s draft if teams will take on one of the Wizards’ oversized expiring contracts, reports our old friend Ben Standig working for thesportscapitol.com.

The Wizards are open to trading down from the 15th overall pick in Thursday’s draft if another team takes on one of Washington’s expiring contracts. That’s the message relayed from the Wizards to other NBA teams, a league source tells The Sports Capitol.

The Wizards have five players with expiring contracts, including starters Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris. Gortat’s $13.56 million salary for the 2018-19 season dwarfs the other expiring deals. The hefty figure counts among the reasons why the 34-year-old center is considered a likely trade piece.

This plan is unlikely to work unless the team in question actually wanted one of those players anyway. It is worth the shot.

That said, expect a lot of trades and movement on draft night — that is the buzz around the league. After DeAndre Ayton going No. 1 there is not really a consensus, and some teams have fallen in love with players and are willing to trade up and get them. Teams starting with Sacramento at No. 2 are fielding serious offers for their picks, and a few may jump at them.

The problem is the guys teams love will be off the board by No. 15, which means the Wizards may be making a pick. Which is not a bad thing, they have traded their picks away for years and they could use the injection of youth. Still, they will look to trade this pick too if it helps lessen the burden on their payroll.

Report: Cavaliers flying blind into draft because LeBron doesn’t know what he’s going to do

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The first day we’re going to get a hint of LeBron James‘ plan this summer is June 29 — that’s the date he has to opt into, or out of, the $35.6 million on his contract for next season.

Opt-in and that means either he’s staying with the Cavaliers or there has been an arrangement made to trade him (likely to Houston). Opt- out and he becomes a free agent on July 1 — he could re-sign with the Cavaliers, or he could sign anywhere else for next season.

What LeBron is doing could impact what the Cavaliers do at the NBA draft, keep the No. 8 pick and draft for the future or try to trade it (probably packaged with Kevin Love or another player) to get LeBron more help now.

But LeBron isn’t going to let the Cavaliers know because he himself doesn’t know, reports Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

According to sources, the Cavs’ front office and James’ camp have been in contact over the phone and in person, though there has been no meeting with James present, nor has there been any real dialogue as far as James’ future is concerned.

Because the superstar himself doesn’t know.

The Cavs have been signaling (strongly, in some cases) that they’re looking to upgrade their team from the group that was swept out of the Finals this month, whether James stays or goes.

If LeBron is staying, then the Cavaliers should consider trading that pick to a team eager to land someone still on the board (if Michael Porter Jr. is still available there likely would be plenty of solid offers). However, if he’s going they should use that pick to start the rebuild (and Porter would be a good step that direction).

In reality, the Cavaliers have to act as if LeBron is gone. That was the sense one got being around the team through the playoffs and Finals, that this relationship had run its course. The Cavaliers should draft the best player they can with that pick, unless some team comes through with a killer offer for the slot (and Love plus the No. 8 is not going to land Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are not moving that fast to trade anyway). Then, if and when LeBron leaves, start looking at possible trades for Love, Kyle Korver, and every other veteran on the roster. Start the rebuild.

Still, new GM Koby Altman is flying blind on draft night, and LeBron’s not going to help the team out.